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Jewish and Democratic

March 3, 2017

Many people, motivated by genuine love and concern for the State of Israel, have urged Israel to reach a territorial accommodation with the Palestinians. Their goal is to ensure that Israel can maintain its identity, so central to the Zionist dream, of being both Jewish and democratic. Ruling over a non-Jewish population, the argument goes, places these two ideals at odds with each other. If Israel annexes the West Bank it must either absorb a sizable Arab population, becoming a bi-national state rather than a Jewish one, or deny these people the full rights and privileges of citizenship, thus sacrificing its democratic character.

I have three responses to these well-meaning friends. First, neither Israel’s Jewish identity nor its democratic nature is threatened in any significant way; the trends, in fact, point in the other direction. Second, another critical factor is missing from the Jewish-and-democratic equation. And finally, the real identity crisis is not in Israel at all, but among American Jews—many of those who are troubled by the danger they perceive to the Zionist ideals.

Israel’s democracy is as vibrant as ever. Israel has a representative form of government, and is one of only two Middle East countries Freedom House rates as “Free.” Jewish and non-Jewish citizens vote in regularly and irregularly scheduled elections; government transitions are orderly and peaceful—and always to the parties that received the largest number of votes. The Israeli press is fiercely independent. Activist courts strike down laws they consider wrong. All citizens, and even non-citizens, have standing to sue the government for any alleged transgression or wrongdoing, and a well-founded expectation that justice will be served. Israel is, in fact, an enviable model of democracy and rule of law, with no evidence of any erosion in this area.

Nor is there any risk to Israel’s Jewish majority and Jewish character. Jewish birth rates are up, while Arab birth rates decline. Jewish immigration (aliya) is on the rise as Jews elsewhere, especially in Europe, face an increasingly hostile environment. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) political power is increasing—witness the battles over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, for example—much to the chagrin of many of the same people so concerned about maintaining Israel’s Jewishness. If anything, Israel is becoming more Jewish, not less.

Israel does have a challenge with the Palestinian population of the West Bank, two million non-Jews who are not (and do not want to be) Israeli citizens. The area came under Israel’s rule in 1967, in a war initiated by Arab countries determined to annihilate the reborn state. Israel did not set out to expand its territory; with the exception of the ancient Jewish capital in Jerusalem, it has not annexed these areas. And since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the West Bank Arabs have been mostly ruled by their own, not-so-democratic and often corrupt, Palestinian Authority.

Most Israelis—the messianic fringe of the settler movement is the exception—would love to disentangle from the West Bank and separate from the Palestinians. But this is where the third leg of the stool comes in: The country’s security, stability, even survival are at stake. Israelis love to debate what the final borders might look like, what should be the fate of Jewish communities or settlements on the “wrong” side of the border, and what to do about Jerusalem. But there is something that they love even more, and that is life itself. Israelis want to live. They embrace and celebrate life. Jewish-and-democratic sounds great in principle, but if it means Jewish-democratic-and-dead, they’ll pass.

This is not a hypothetical tradeoff. Israel’s neighbors launched three major wars—in 1948, 1967, and 1973—with the explicit objective of destroying the state and annihilating its residents. More recent territorial withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 did not bring peace and tranquility, or Jewish-and-democratic ideals, but rockets and terror tunnels and wars. So Israelis are understandably weary of the notion that if they would just be content with less land, if they only made territorial compromises and concessions, they could live happily ever after as Jewish-and-democratic. Given the three variables in the equation, Israel has opted for being mostly Jewish, mostly democratic, and mostly alive. Until they see a better option, Israelis will continue to balance these three, within the current boundaries of Israeli control and limited Palestinian autonomy.

Among the most vocal proponents of Jewish-and-democratic (but smaller and less secure) Israel are many liberal American Jews. Ironically, it is their community—not the Jewish Israelis they are so eager to protect from themselves—that is threatened. American Jews are increasingly distant not only from Israel, but from their own heritage and Jewish identity. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that over one-fifth of American Jews describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. Over half of those married in the last two decades have non-Jewish spouses. The total Jewish American population has declined from about 6 million in 1981 to 5 million in 2013.; during the same period, the Israeli Jewish population grew from 3.3 million to 6.1 million. So which is the endangered species? Is it possible that the entire Jewish-and-democratic debate among American Jews is simply a projection of the disappearing Jewish-and-American identity? A shrinking American Jewish community, increasingly assimilated, intermarried, and unaffiliated, lacks the moral authority to lecture Israelis about what would constitute a genuine and sustainable Jewish identity for the Jewish state.

Israel is a thriving democracy, its people deeply committed to the country’s Jewish identity, its social and political structure, and its long-term security. Israelis are acutely aware of the dilemmas, the dangers, and the tradeoffs of their situation. They will continue to have these debates, in private conversations and in the public sphere, with or without the well-intentioned hand-wringing and moralizing of an American Jewish community in a demographic and identity decline.

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Also published at The Times of Israel on March 3, 2017

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